Saturday AFC Wildcard Preview

J.J. Watt
The Associated Press

Saturday’s AFC Wildcard games feature two closely-matched contests.

The first game, Kansas City at Houston, will be loaded with great pass rushers, including the NFL’s last two sack champions—the Chiefs’ Justin Houston (2014) and the Texans’ J.J. Watt (2015). The quarterbacks in this game better bring their track shoes. The second game, Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, should be an aerial battle with two of the NFL’s finest receivers on the field – the Steelers’ Antonio Brown and the Bengals’ A.J. Green.

Let’s take a closer look at these tilts.

No. 5 Kansas City Chiefs at No. 4 Houston Texans, Saturday, 4:35 p.m., ABC & ESPN

The Chiefs should be ready for playoff pressure.

Essentially this is like their 11th straight playoff game after a 1-5 start. They dug out of that prodigious hole with 10 straight wins.

Ironically, their only win during their awful start came Week One in Houston. Now they travel back to the Lone Star State looking for an 11th straight.

And while they did win the Week One encounter, they are a much better team now thanks in part to the steady play of quarterback Alex Smith, who threw just four interceptions in the last 13 games. The Chiefs enjoy a +16 turnover ratio, the best in the league. In the NFL, this is a stat of great import.

The Texans present a huge challenge for Smith with their ferocious pass rush, featuring Watt, who led the NFL with 17.5 sacks. However, don’t sleep on outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, who had 12 sacks.

Speaking of talented pass rushers, the Chiefs get back Justin Houston, the NFL’s 2014 sack king. He missed the last five regular-season games with a hyper-extended knee. The linebacker trio of Houston, Dee Ford, and Tamba Hali are a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Texans QB Brian Hoyer knows this firsthand. He was sacked four times in Week One, and got benched in the fourth quarter.

This match-up is too close to call. And Las Vegas agrees. The Texans are three-point favorites, which essentially means it’s a pick ’em game. Vegas generally gives the home-team three points when formulating a spread.

Your guess is as good as mine.

No. 6 Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 3 Cincinnati Bengals, Saturday, 8:15 p.m., CBS

With Bengals starting quarterback Andy Dalton sidelined due to a broken thumb, A.J. McCarron starts.

The moment isn’t too big for McCarron, who quarterbacked Alabama to two national championships. Starting the last three regular season games for Dalton, McCarron passed for 832 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. The Bengals went 2-1.

Helping McCarron, the Steelers struggle covering A.J. Green. In fact, they struggle covering most receivers. They aren’t particularly strong at cornerback.

Speaking of cornerbacks, the Bengals face the herculean task of covering Antonio Brown, who had an eye-popping 136 regular-season receptions.

“You just get physical with him,” Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said of Brown. “You match his attitude, you match his intensity and you’ve just got to want it more than him. That’s what you’ve got to go into the game with: believing that you can outplay that guy.”

The Steelers play without their two top tailbacks, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, both injured.

Considering the Steelers issues at running back and cornerback, and the Bengals being at home, the pick here is Cincinnati.